A World Cup Miscellany: Group F

This is the sixth in series of brief and miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, and Group E).  The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, to utilize Eric Hobsbawn’s notion that “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people,” to fill some space towards the World Cup frenzy…

What if the World Cup was organized by some criteria beyond just nation-state boundary?  What if it was like boxing or wrestling, with different weight classes to make matches competitive?  Or what if it were like American professional sports, where the teams that get to play are the ones with the most money?  What would be the criteria to keep things fair in world football?

Taking this hypothetical as a question of what objective characteristics matter most to a country’s soccer success, I’ll turn (yet again) to the book Soccernomics: Why England Loses.  Authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski identify three key variables in their effort to statistically predict international football success by country: experience (ie, number of international games played in a nation’s history), wealth, and population.  I don’t really buy Kuper and Szymanski’s argument for experience—it just doesn’t makes sense that what happened 50 years ago matters much to a team now, and seems more like their Euro-centrism in statistical guise (since most western European countries have been playing regular internationals for longer than countries in other parts of the world).  I do buy that wealth, operationalized as GDP per capita, matters—but that wouldn’t be much fun as a criteria for a World Cup because it would leave Brazil and Argentina playing against mostly minnows while the US gets whooped by Germany and France.

That leaves population.  And population brings me to Group F: the Super Flyweights of the 2010 World Cup.  As the smallest quartet in the tournament, you could combine the populations of all four teams in Group F—Italy with 60 million, Paraguay with 6.3 million, New Zealand with 4 million, and Slovakia with 5.4 million—and get a population that would fit two and a half times over in Brazil alone.  Or four times over in the United States (as a side note, when people express surprise that Americans have bought more World Cup tickets than any other nation outside the hosts, remind them that the US is quite easily the largest country in the tournament—and certainly the largest with significant disposable income).

So what would a World Cup contested by population brackets look like?  The Best Eleven blog did much of the work on this back in January with a post comparing FIFA rankings by population for countries with over 100 million (the US came in third behind Brazil and Russia—with Bangladesh and Pakistan at the bottom of the table); 50-100 million; 30-50 million; 20-30 million; 10-20 million; and then a separate post for countries with 8-10 million; 6-8 million; 5-6 million; 4-5 million; 3-4 million; 2-3 million; 1-2 million; and less than 1 million (go Bahrain and Cyprus!).

In that scheme Group F looks pretty good.  Italy was number one in the 50-100 million group (with Myanmar and the Philippines at the bottom of the table); Slovakia came second to Denmark in the 5-6 million people group; Paraguay was third in the 6-8 million group (behind only Switzerland of World Cup teams); and New Zealand came in a respectable fifth in a tough 4-5 million group (behind Croatia, Norway, Ireland, and Costa Rica).

Now what if we took this line of thinking to another logical extreme and tried to make the World Cup a representative democracy?   If we value all human life equally, shouldn’t teams be representative of the world’s population?  Well, probably not.  Because if you did it that way, you’d have to allot 12 of the 32 spots to teams from China (with about 20% of the world’s population) and India (with about 17%).  The US, with about 4.5% of the world’s population, would get almost a team and half—but to make up that other half it would probably need to combine with Mexico (1.5% of the world’s population) and that just wouldn’t be any fun.  Brazil, with about 2.8% of the world’s population, would still just about get a team—but so would Indonesia (3.39%), Pakistan (2.49%), and Bangladesh (2.38%).  Group F, on the other hand, represents just 1.1% of the world population combined—good for about a third of an entry in a truly representative 32 team World Cup.  Finally, Europe (with about 10.9% of the world’s population) would only get about three teams in total (compared to 13 in South Africa 2010)—confirming that indeed FIFA would never let this happen.

It is, however, worth keeping in mind that for all the discussion about youth development schemes, league set-ups, coaching traditions, sports culture, and “passion for the game,” population does matter.  Why, for example, is Australia likely to be significantly better than New Zealand at the World Cup?  Could it be as simple as the fact that the Australian population, and thus the Aussie player pool, is nearly six times bigger than the Kiwis?  It is probably quite significant that since tiny Uruguay (currently the 132nd largest country in the world with 3.4 million) won the first and fourth World Cups in 1930 and 1950, no nation with a current population under 40 million has lifted the trophy (by my count, Argentina is the least-populous winner).

Fortunately, part of the fun of the World Cup is that it ultimately comes down to eleven players on the day—regardless of how big the national player pool.  I might be able to explain the contrast between New Zealand and Australia in terms of population, but that doesn’t explain why the Kiwis are likely to get pasted by comparably sized Paraguay and Slovakia.  To figure that one out, we’ll just need to watch the games.

Group F: The Group of _______________

In addition to the notably small population size, Group F has some intriguing statistical character (see the table below).  Take Paraguay: besides the African nations, Paraguay and Honduras are the two poorest countries in the tournament (Paraguay as a GDP per capita of $4500, Honduras $4100) and the two with the lowest ranking on the United Nations Human Development Index (Paraguay is 101st, Honduras 112th).  Yet for Paraguay that may be misleading since it also ranks as the World Cup nation with the highest level of economic inequality (based on the “Gini index” scores reported on Wikipedia from the CIA World Factbook).  The only two countries close to Paraguay (at 128th of 135 countries) on inequality are the current and future World Cup hosts: South Africa was one spot better at 127th and Brazil three spots up at 125th.

What I found most statistically interesting about this group, however, was another random category in which Paraguay tops the World Cup nations: corruption.  On this one, according to Transparency International, Paraguay is actually tied with Côte d’Ivoire at 154th out of 180 world nations on ‘perceptions of corruption.’  Slovakia (at 56th) and Italy (at 63rd) do a bit better—but of course we all know the reputation of Italian football.  John Foot, in his aptly titled book Winning at All Costs: A Scandalous History of Italian Soccer, has an entire section on ‘Corruption, Suspicion, Legitimation’ where he notes:

“For the Italian football fan, the referee is always corrupt, unless proven otherwise.  What remains to be discovered is how he is or has been corrupt, in favour of whom, and why.  It is this thesis that dominates most discussions of Italian football.  Conspiracy theories abound – are hegemonic, in fact.  Who will be allowed to win next year, next week, tomorrow, and why?  In Italy, there is the strong conviction that the state, its rules and regulations are flexible entities, besmirched with corruption and therefore ready to be flouted and challenged…In Italy, as the writer and football critic Giovanni Arpino put it, ‘those who hold power, even for ninety minutes, are never looked upon in a good light’.”

A generalization?  Sure; but in soccer terms the Italians have to be considered at least as corrupt as the Paraguayans.

Interestingly, however, all these perceptions of corruption are counterbalanced in Group F by the presence of New Zealand—ranked by Transparency International as the least corrupt country in the world.  But still, while the nation of New Zealand seems beyond suspicion, any national team with a center back who can’t get a game with the New York Red Bulls on the roster (Andrew Boyens) could only be described as ‘suspect.’  So I’m labeling Group F The Group of Suspicion and Innuendo.

Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?

ESPN's 2010 FIFA World Cup Murals by the Cape Town-based AM I Collective

The Paraguayans are a tough one to calculate with my secret formula of soccer history and global politics.  Being relatively small and relatively poor makes them seem a bit like a noble underdog, and it would be  just for them to win in the name of their fallen compatriot—national team regular Salvador Cabañas who was shot, but not killed, in Mexico City.  I also tend to think they just look majestic in their red and white stripes.  But it’s not enough to overcome being the most unequal country in the tournament: Paraguay is out.

The Italians also have much against them.  Silvio Berlusconi.  That ugly catenaccio lock-down style.  The traitor Giuseppe Rossi.  I want to hate them.  But I just can’t—perhaps because I know they don’t particularly care what anyone else thinks (and they are not bad in regard to inequality: at 38th, they’re just three spots behind Canada).  They’ll win, and they are in.

Pop quiz: which World Cup team will likely feature two Stanford University graduates?  Hint: it’s not the US or England.  I feel some affinity for New Zealand thanks to their strange connections with the much maligned American college soccer system (both Simon Elliott and Ryan Nelson finished college at Stanford, after the Cardinal soccer program was briefly taken over by former New Zealand national team coach, former Scottish international, and current Notre Dame coach Bobby Clark).  In addition to the two from Stanford, Tony Lochhead played at UC Santa Barbara, Tim Brown played at the University of Cincinnati, Andrew Barron played at William Carey University in Mississippi, Aaron Clapham finished at the University of Louisville, Andrew Boyens played at the University of New Mexico, and there may be others I’ve missed.  So even if they won’t win any games, I’ll take the Kiwis in a debate about the value of a good liberal arts education.  The problem is that I just don’t think soccer matters enough in New Zealand—everything else (including Rugby) is going too well.  So despite a respect for higher education, New Zealand is out.

That leaves me with Slovakia—and I’m fine with that.  After they split with the Czechs I kind of lost the plot, but that whole ‘Velvet Divorce’ seemed quite reasonable.  So if there were any justice in the world, Italy and Slovakia would advance from Group F.  But, as the lack of representative democracy in the World Cup makes clear, there is rarely any justice in the world.

Group F – Some Stats

FIFA rank Betting odds on winning the Cup Population GDP per capita Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index Life expectancy Rank out of 180 nations on perception of corruption A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)
Italy 5 14 60 mil 29100 18 80.5 63 13
Paraguay 30 80 6.3 mil. 4500 101 71.8 154 16
New Zealand 78 2500 4 mil. 26700 20 80.2 1 30
Slovakia 38 250 5.4 mil. 21200 42 74.7 56 22
- FIFA rank is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking” updated April 28th, 2010
- Betting odds on winning the World Cup are from the “win-market” best odds as of May 12th on the Guardian web-site.
- Population is rounded from estimates drawing on various sources in Wikipedia.
- GDP per capita is in US dollars and based on 2008 list by the International Monetary Fund “derived from purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations.”
- The Human Development Index rank is from the United Nations Development Program combining 2007 data on “Life Expectancy, Education, Standard of living and GDP.”
- Life expectancy in years is based on the 2009 list from the CIA World Factbook for “overall life expectancy at birth.”
– Ranking on perceptions of corruption is based on the 2009 Index from Transparency International.
- The 1-32 ranking of how much the World Cup matters is my own totally subjective sense of how much the country as a whole cares about how the team performs in South Africa; it is intended entirely in fun.

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